Exploration of the role of perceived environmental affordances in supporting intergenerational interaction, and hence loneliness in the elderly
Background: Over the past several years, a problem affecting the elderly population has been increasingly reported in the popular press—the elderly population is dying as a result of loneliness and related factors at a rate greater than that for lack of medical care. The problem is so pervasive that loneliness is being described as an epidemic. The literature review revealed an explanatory plausible causal association between physical design and loneliness; some of the causal links are theory-based, whereas others have been empirically examined. Objective: This study has two objectives: (1) to test a mediational model of loneliness; (2) to explore how environmental design features support intergenerational interaction. Method: A mixed-method strategy was adopted, including collecting quantitative and qualitative data. Traditional and Bayesian regressions were used to estimate the effect of the mediational model of loneliness. The environmental ranking survey was developed to provide insight into which features significantly impact the subjects. The 360° virtual tour of the campuses was created to specify which feature was being discussed. Interviews were conducted on older adults to understand how environmental design features affect intergenerational interaction. Qualitative data analysis included three theories (symbolic interactionism, proxemics, and affordance) that were used to uncover phenomena that appeared to be essential based on the outcome of the interviews. Results: The ranking survey revealed that the ability to watch children playing in the playground was the feature that had the most significant impact on the subjects. The three lenses used assisted in building a concrete understanding from different perspectives that addressed the following phenomena–the subjects’ desire to interact with the children on the same plane and establish direct eye contact. In addition, the subjects are drawn to observe children doing activities in contrast to other activities. Finally, the subjects seemed to value their role as mentors and surrogate parents to the children. Conclusions: Between theoretical propositions and empirical literature, there exist grounds to assert that a plausible causal pathway exists between the physical environment and loneliness in the elderly population. Building on this theoretical approach, the analysis of the qualitative data collected revealed a substantial interpretation of the addressed phenomena. Eye-level interaction might be related to a desire to emphasize friendly relationships with children. While the draw to observe children could be associated with recalling positive emotions and memories and experiencing parenting feelings, there is a potential causal link between observing children and experiencing parenting, as this would be considered an opportunity for caring and generativity for the younger generation. The causal association between generativity and purpose was found in Erikson's Theory (1950). Finding purpose later in life is a benefit identified by this study that can address older adults' loneliness by creating opportunities for generativity.
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